Storm brewing over Noguchi's 'Landscape of Clouds'

Author

Michele Racioppi

Affiliation

Docomomo US staff

Tags

Threatened, Advocacy, Art, New York
Image details

Isamu Noguchi's artwork in the midcentury skyscraper at 666 Fifth Avenue has not escaped the pressures of the New York City real estate market. The building, including the lobby with Noguchi's artwork, has been modified over the years to in order to maintain the building's profitability, and now the current owner, Brookfield Properties, wants to remove the artist's work completely.

Completed in 1957, the building at 666 Fifth Avenue (originally known as the Tishman Building) was designed by the firm of Carson & Lundin and built by Tishman Realty and Construction. Noguchi's undulating ceiling, which he called "a landscape of clouds," and a floor-to-ceiling wall fountain that echoes the ceiling design were original to the space. In a 2010 article, "Art, Architecture and Public Space in New York," Docomomo US President Theo Prudon argues that, unlike other examples of sculpture in modern buildings, "this installation is different . . .  in that it is not a mere installation but attempts to shape the entire environment suggesting a closer working relationship [with the architects]."

In the late 1990s, then-owners Sumitomo Realty and Development set out to upgrade the building, and considered removing the ceiling, causing concern among preservationists. After some consideration, the company invested $1 million in restoring the ceiling and another $300,000 for the fountain. The project was led by Nobutaka Ashihara, a friend and student of Noguchi's. Additional changes to the lobby at this time included converting the Fifth Avenue arcade to retail, and removing the patterned floors (there is no evidence Noguchi designed the floor). One effect of this was to change the orientation from which the building was entered, so that the fountain was now experienced from the side, rather than approached head-on. 

Although preservationists took it as a positive outcome at the time, these changes are now being used by Brookfield to argue that the art as it exists now "in no way reflects Noguchi's original vision." Docomomo US/NY Tri-State board member, John Morris Dixon, disagrees, pointing out that “The most significant part of the original ensemble has survived, and it’s landmark worthy . . . You already have this strong, creative treatment of the walls and the ceiling and you can’t expect to come up with something nearly as artistically effective again. Why risk it when you’ve got it already? The lobby is a great asset that gives a high degree of individuality to the building.”

The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum said that "it will do everything possible to make sure the artwork is still there when all is said and done." 

Docomomo US also supports the preservation of the artwork in situ. There is precedent - the works were restored once successfully - and Noguchi installations in other buildings have also been restored, such as this ceiling in a U-Haul showroom in St. Louis. 

From Picasso's Le Tricorne in the Seagram Building to Richard Lippold's Orpheus and Apollo in Lincoln Center to Constantino Nivola's mural in the Hurley Building, threats to site-specific works of art are not new. Docomomo US has long been and will continue to be an advocate for these threatened works. We must push to consider sites holistically - the building, landscape, and artwork are equal parts of a whole that create the finished work.

We will continue to monitor as the situation develops and share updates. 

 

Sources


"A rarely-seen Noguchi installation is under threat in Midtown renovation," The Architect's Newspaper, February 27, 2020.

"Isamu Noguchi Artwork in Midtown Building Is in Peril," New York Times, February 25, 2020.

"A Noguchi Ceiling in a U-Haul Showroom Is Restored to Its Former Glory," Hyperallergic, May 5, 2016.

Prudon, Theodore, "Art, Architecture and Public Space in New York, 1950-1970," Docomomo International Journal Issue 42, Summer 2010.

"Now, Landlord to Repair 2 Noguchi Sculptures," New York Times, July 29, 1998.